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MORGAN FREEMAN BIOGRAPHY
MORGAN FREEMAN BIOGRAPHY
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Filmography: The Complete List


Time was when the silver screen was awash with dignity. Film-makers needing a hero of high moral standing could choose from a wide array of stars. Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, John Wayne - all brought gravitas and stern-but-tolerant manhood to many a role. In these confusing times, though, such eminently trustworthy figures are few and far between. Indeed, perhaps there's only one. He was the strong, forgiving chauffeur breaking down the race-divide in Driving Miss Daisy: he was the studious, determined detective, loathing but understanding killer Kevin Spacey in Seven: he was Tim Robbins' faithful, sympathetic mentor, finding hope in Hell in The Shawshank Redemption. He is, of course, Morgan Freeman, cinema's one true Face Of Human Decency. But there's so much more to him than a caring glance and benevolent smile. He's lived a hard and full life and did, after all, gain his first Oscar nomination as a suave and vicious pimp.

Morgan Freeman was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 1st of June, 1937. These were harsh years, with the Wall Street Crash leading through to the Dust Bowl, and then the war in Europe. His parents worked in a hospital, trying to maintain a family that eventually included six children - five boys and one girl. When Morgan was very young, like so many other workers in the South, his mum and dad migrated to Chicago, seeking work in the factories. Morgan went to live with his grandparents in Charleston, Mississippi, where his earliest memories were formed and where he still owns a home.

History has it that life was a nightmare for blacks in the South in the Forties. But Morgan does not recall feeling any real pain. At school, he says they had "second-hand equipment but first class teachers. Things didn't seem all that detrimental". Yet, for a while, he didn't take to school. He was no athlete and didn't enjoy academics. Eventually, though, his imagination was caught by extra-curricular subjects, in particular music and theatre. This new interest led him to become a "serious" student, and he began to excel. He humbly admits to enjoying the attention his academic exploits brought.

Morgan would spend his summers with his parents in Chicago. This is where he discovered another great love - the cinema. There was no money for such frivolities, so each day he'd scour the streets looking for empties to cash in for their deposits. Twelve cents would gain admission - being two coke bottles and a beer bottle. The first movie he remembers was King Kong. Then came a hero-worship of Saturday cowboy stars like Jay Maynard, John MacBrown and Jimmy Wakely. Later, there was Cagney and Bogart, Cooper and Peck.

For some reason, Morgan loved war films with aeroplanes; they filled him with a special excitement. It was an attraction that continued through his teens and led to him joining the Air Force at the age of 18. (All the Freeman boys, bar the youngest, became military men. One brother, when still a teenager, drowned while serving with the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina). Morgan spent a year and a half sitting behind a desk, increasingly disillusioned. Then came his turn to train as a pilot, his dream. But, when first sitting in a jet fighter, he was suddenly seized by the reality of dealing death from the skies, and had the "distinct feeling I was sitting in the nose of a bomb". He realised he'd been enamoured of the MOVIE version of this life, not the real thing. Acting was his vocation so, after three years, eight months and ten days, he bailed out.

By now, it was the late Fifties. Morgan moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. A family put him up and fed him as he was penniless. After a while, he got a job as a transcript clerk at LA's City College. The pay was terrible, but the acting, dancing and singing classes were free. He proved to be excellent at dance-movement, and was encouraged to pursue dancing work, which might lead into acting. Indeed, his first paycheck came as a dancer - as a member of the Cabaret Union, he danced at the World Fair in 1964. But, having only begun dance at 22, and having never been particularly athletic, he lacked confidence and, anyway, he wanted to act NOW. Eventually, he got the job that changed everything, as a member of the Inca Chorus in a bus'n'truck tour of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun. Also an understudy, his chance came when he came on as sub in Des Moines. "The feeling of rightness and power that washed over me on the stage," he later told Graham Fuller "came as a revelation to me. I said to myself 'THIS is what you do, THIS is where you really shine'".

He moved to New York and, trying to build experience, he auditioned for everything. Jobs were hard to come by and he continually went hungry, often starving for days before he'd ask his friends for help. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride before you get to swallow anything else. Making his off-Broadway debut in 1967 in a contentious production called The Niggerlovers (concerning the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement), he was suddenly on a thrilling $72 a week. Again, he's said he did not take the role for political reasons - "I was just trying to stay alive in New York". Still, "It was wonderful," he recalled. "I wasn't hungry anymore, and neither was my dog". The next year brought a further step up, in an all-black Broadway version of Hello Dolly!, starring Pearl Bailey.

Throughout the Sixties, Freeman struggled hard off-Broadway, in regional theatre, taking anything to move on and up. He did historical plays, contemporary plays, Brecht, the lot. He remembers the first time his name was above the play's title on the billboard outside the theatre. It was a three-character play and, on the first night, the leading man forgot his lines entirely, forcing them to close the curtains on him. The show shut after four sorry nights. Morgan also procured walk-on parts on TV and in the movies, his first appearance as an extra being in 1965, in Rod Steiger's strange, painful and infamous The Pawnbroker. Then came the Seventies, and the first real taste of fame. Strangely, considering he's now one of the most respected screen actors alive, this came with the TV series The Electric Company, a kind of prototype Sesame Street that taught kids phonetics and grammar via sketches, songs and cartoons. Co-starring with Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby, Freeman appeared as such characters as Easy Reader, Count Dracula, the Mad Scientist and, naturally given the roles to come, The Cop.

The show ran for 780 episodes, from 1971. Freeman continued his stage work on the side, picking up the odd screen role too. But his Electric Company work was getting him down. It was so undemanding and he felt it was all he would ever get. He now says it drove him to drink. With the series finally over, he returned to New York and the theatre. At the time, many black actors, many of them friends of Morgan, were taking off for Hollywood, riding the Blaxploitation wave started by the likes of Shaft and Foxy Brown. Morgan, desperate for "proper" work, thought he should go too, but was persuaded not to by his agent Jeff Hunter. When the time is right, he said, Hollywood will come for you.

And it did, in the shape of Robert Redford who cast Freeman in his prison drama Brubaker. A brilliant and touching movie, where a new prison boss learns about the corruption within his establishment by being incarcerated himself, Brubaker saw Freeman at his moral and battered best, and was prime practice for the role he'd play 14 years later in The Shawshank Redemption.

Now, entering the Eighties, Freeman was taking off. His marriage to Jeanette Adair Bradshaw, whom he'd married back in '67 and who'd gave him two sons, Alfonso and Saifoulaye, now ended in divorce. But, career-wise, he was on the up. He won an Obie for his performances onstage in Coriolanus and Mother Courage. He revisited prison with the docu-drama Attica, played a cop in the Sigourney Weaver-starring The Janitor and was Malcolm X in Death Of A Prophet.

Sadly, this glorious dawn proved false and, by 1982, Morgan was unemployed again, this time with kids to worry about. Again he was forced into dodgy TV work, this time taking the role of Dr Roy Bingham in soap opera Another World, the long-running tale of life in the mid-Western town of Bay City. He stayed for two long, long years. (He'd be followed immediately by Kelsey Grammer as Dr Canard, and later by both Anne Heche and Ray Liotta).

Gamely, throughout his run on Another World he sought more challenging work. Nothing doing - until, thankfully and coincidentally, up popped Paul Newman, Butch Cassidy to Redford's Sundance. Hiring Freeman for a part in his Harry And Son, Newman heard that it was Morgan's first screen role in three years. His quote? "That's criminal". Fortunately, the producers of Another World were as decent as Newman and allowed Morgan's character to be written out of the show so he could take a part in the groundbreaking miniseries The Atlanta Child Murders. But, yet again, though it was well-received, it proved a springboard to nothing.

Back to the theatre he went. There were a few TV movies, but nothing special. Then it actually began to go right for real. First, there was a second marriage, to Myrna Colley-Lee, a costume designer with whom he'd raise two daughters, Deena and Morgana. There was a Tony nomination for The Mighty Gents, and another Obie, this time for The Gospel At Colonus. And, attending a performance at the Playwright's Horizon, something on the upcomings leaflet caught his eye - a play covering twenty years in the lives of a reactionary old Jewish woman and her serene black chauffeur. Called Driving Miss Daisy, he saw it, loved it and won himself a role in it.

The part won him another Obie but, more importantly, rave reviews scored him the role of the pimp who hassles writer Christopher Reeve in Street Smart. Freeman was superb, receiving an Oscar nomination, and he was away. He was brilliant as Michael Keaton's drugs counselor in Clean And Sober, then as the dedicated but tyrannical Principal Joe Clark, trying to clean up an inner city school in Lean On Me.

Now it was just hit after hit. Having broken through at the age of fifty (when called a late bloomer, he once replied "I bloomed very early. It's just that no one bothered to notice"), he brought a wealth of experience with him. There was the film version of Driving Miss Daisy, for which he was Oscar-nominated again (he won a Golden Globe), then he was Sgt Major John Rawlins, fighting the Civil War with America's first black regiment in Glory. He played Kevin Costner's scimitar-wielding buddy Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and Clint Eastwood's old gunslinging pard' in Unforgiven. In the meantime, he lent his voice to the award-winning documentary The Civil War, the beginning of much high-profile voiceover work.

Next, he was Oscar-nominated for the third time, as Red in The Shawshank Redemption (Red, in case you've ever wondered, was originally written as an Irishman). Then came viral disaster flick Outbreak, and the grim but brilliant thriller Seven, with Freeman tremendous as the lonely, world-battered Detective Somerset, drawn into one last (dreadful) case with the headstrong Brad Pitt.

After a version of Daniel Defoe's roustabout Moll Flanders and the conspiracy-packed Chain Reaction, Freeman proved he could carry a movie on his own, more or less reprising his role as Somerset when he played Dr Alex Cross, investigating the kidnapping of his niece in Kiss The Girls. The movie went US Number One, leading to a sequel, the similarly successful Along Came A Spider, also derived from a novel by James Patterson.

Of course, Freeman was in Steven Spielberg's Amistad - how could he NOT be? Not only was his great-great-great-grandmother a Virginia slave who was bought by a Colonel Wright and taken to Mississippi, but he's MORGAN FREEMAN, for God's sake. Then, that extraordinary dignity of his now being undeniable, he played the President, trying to keep everyone calm in the face of an onrushing comet in the mega-hit Deep Impact. Black presidents don't really go down well in some quarters. But, such is Freeman's evident depth and compassion, no one said anything.

You'd think it couldn't get much better, but it did. First Freeman became something of a powerbroker by forming his own production company, Revelations Entertainment, with producer Lori McCreary. Their aim - and this is SO Morgan Freeman - is to "develop and produce projects that enlighten, express heart and glorify the human experience". First came Under Suspicion, where cunning detective Freeman and firebrand Thomas Jane questioned philandering attorney Gene Hackman over the deaths of three young girls down in Puerto Rico. The interrogations were impressively fierce and the performances fine, but this $25 million effort still went straight to video. This, of course, would not help the company in their attempt to finance a big-budget version of Rendezvous With Rama, penned by Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001, and to be directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Game). Morgan is something of a sci-fi freak, and has a huge telescope in the backyard of the ranch he bought back in Charleston in the mid-Nineties (he and Myra have attempted to turn it into a latterday Tara).

Following Under Suspicion came Nurse Betty where Neil LaBute took a step away from corruscating social dramas to direct a comedy, albeit a dark one. Here Freeman played a cool assassin, aided by hot-headed Chris Rock, who kills Renee Zellweger's braggart wheeler-dealer husband in one of the more horrible ways imaginable, then pursues her across country. He doesn't realise she's flipped out completely and is planning to begin a romance with a soap opera doctor she believes to be real. Instead he considers her crazy antics to be the actions of a smart, brave and resourceful woman, and his admiration turns to love. And this, incredibly, led to Morgan Freeman's first screen kiss. Having made his first appearance back in 1965, he'd had to wait 35 years for any romantic involvement at all. No lovers, no girlfriends, nothing. No wonder he looks so dignified. The man has the patience of a SAINT.

After enjoying a big hit with Along Came A Spider, he reunited with his Kiss The Girls co-star Ashley Judd for High Crimes. Here she played an attorney attempting to defend her husband, Jim Caviezel, an ex-Army man charged by a military tribunal with murder, relating to a massacre in a South American village. Knowing little of the military process, she calls upon Freeman as co-counsel, and he steps up, though the newfound pressure pushes him back into alcoholism.

Now came Tom Clancy's The Sum Of All Fears, where Ben Affleck took over from Harrison Ford as super-operative Jack Ryan. This time a right-wing nutter has bought a nuke and devastates Baltimore in the hope that this will ignite all-out war between Russia and the US. Morgan, meanwhile, is a high-level CIA guy with a hot-line to the Kremlin and, along with protege Ryan, struggles to keep the peace. Interestingly, the movie-makers used a right-winger instead of the novel's Islamic terrorists because they felt such terrorists did not have the power or organisation to pull off such an outrage. And then the film was delayed by 9/11.

Freeman was always a hard worker, but 2003 saw him begin an extraordinarily prolific run. First came the oddity Levity where the lives of Billy Bob Thornton (a murderer released after 20 years in jail), Holly Hunter (the grown-up sister of his victim), Kirsten Dunst (a lost soul falling into drugs) and Freeman (a street preacher with a secret who runs a hostel for disenfranchised kids and lashes them with apocalyptic rants) all intersect as they seek their individual redemption. Next came a return to Stephen King with Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher which saw a group of young friends (one being Under Suspicion co-star Thomas Jane), linked by a telepathic bond, go on their annual hunting trip and be menaced by alien invaders. Morgan would then arrive as a military commander who, in the grand tradition of cinematic military commanders, doesn't want to make friends with or study the green beasties, he wants to vaporise them, and the nearby town and all its inhabitants. If the situation calls for it, you understand.

Neither of these two movies were successful. Even less so was Guilty By Association, a small flick about a petty crook who returns to hometown Washington DC and is drawn into selling drugs. Freeman would play a drug-squad cop who pulls him in for questioning, thus endangering his life as now everyone thinks he's a snitch. It was nothing more than a cameo from Morgan but - beware! - he then came to dominate the video sleeve. 2003, though, would contain a monster hit in Bruce Almighty, where Freeman proved to be an excellent choice as an all-knowing, all-loving God, bestowing hilarious omnipotence upon failing TV reporter Jim Carrey when he blames his lack of progress on the Almighty.

2004 proved another mix of a year. First came The Big Bounce, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel and a remake of the 1969 original, Ryan O'Neal's first headliner. Here Owen Wilson (as Jack Ryan, trivia fans) played a petty crook and surfer dude, drawn by femme fatale Sara Foster into robbing ex-boss Gary Sinise. Morgan would play a local judge and holiday home landlord who, despite his apparent friendliness, is actually the mastermind behind the noirish shenanigans. One more he was underused, not the case in his next outing, a reunion with his Unforgiven overseer called Million Dollar Baby. Here Clint Eastwood played a tough old boxing trainer who refuses to take on hick wannabe Hilary Swank. Eventually, though, he's persuaded to take the job by Swank's persistence and the wise words of Freeman, as Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris, a former boxer he once took to a title fight and who now acts as his sideman. It wasn't a boxing movie, really, more a deep study of character, as Eastwood's previous film, Mystic River had been. Thus it was nominated for seven Oscars, including one for Freeman as Best Supporting Actor, his fourth Academy nod. This time he'd win it.

Beginning with this accolade, 2005 would see Freeman as near-ubiquitous. Danny The Dog had Jet Li raised from infancy as a fighter by Bob Hoskins to make money in illegal fight clubs. Freeman would turn up as a blind piano teacher who tries to introduce beauty and humanity into this mayhem-machine's life through the power of music. Then would come Lasse Hallstrom's An Unfinished Life, where Robert Redford played a rancher embittered by the death of his son, who's let his marriage and property go to ruin. Enter Jennifer Lopez as the daughter-in-law he blames for his son's demise, with a grand-daughter he didn't realise he had, and cue Horse Whisperer-style healing. Freeman would add depth as Redford's hired hand and only friend, who's been horribly maimed by a grizzly.

Following this would come another major production in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's effort to explain the genesis of the Dark Knight. As Caped Crusader Christian Bale battled with Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Ghul, Freeman would play Lucius Fox, the respected businessman who runs Bruce Wayne's business operations in Gotham City. Next were two thrillers. First, Edison, which marked the debut of pop star Justin Timberlake, playing a young reporter who stumbles upon a corrupt elite within the police force. Initially, he's discouraged then aided by his jaded editor Freeman as he seeks the help of the city's top detective, Kevin Spacey. Then would come Lucky Number Slevin which saw Josh Harnett involved in a brutal turf war between Jewish and Afro-American gangs in New York, the mobs being run respectively by Ben Kingsley and Freeman.

Morgan Freeman has worked hard (actually, not THAT hard as he refuses to do more than five takes of scenes where he has to run), and tries to give something back. Having co-founded the Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop (named after the noted black actor), he's also donated $250,000 to establish a chair of performing arts at Hutchison School for Girls in his birthplace, Memphis. When relaxing (which is not often), he likes to ride - he owns five horses - and loves to sail his boat. He also visits Ground Zero, a blues club he co-owns in Clarksdale, possibly named by the scriptwriter of The Sum Of All Fears.

Now constantly in demand, and with 2003 seeing him awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, few things could make his life better. One would be to finally accept that, having spent 40 years trying not to be pigeonholed, he has actually become Henry Fonda. Another would be to realise his ambition to play more comedy onscreen (he's done plenty onstage and is very good). And lastly, maybe some love interest would be nice. After Renee Zellweger, he must have a taste for it...

Dominic Wills

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